Fix the World Championships Before Nixing the Olympics

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Fix the World Championships Before Nixing the Olympics
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Word on the street is that the NBA would like to eschew the Olympic games in favor of implementing under-23 tournament, and going all in on FIBA's World Championship. The argument is that a basketball equivalent of soccer's World Cup would be a huge interest and revenue generator. Ken Berger of CBS Sports lays out what certain owners are thinking:

"Maybe they haven't been fully debriefed. Maybe they haven't yet received the memo about how much money the owners and commissioner David Stern believe a basketball World Cup could generate. Hint: The number begins with a "B," as in 'billion.'" 

I'm not sure where this "billion" is coming from. It's notoriously difficult to economically appropriate internationally broadcast sports. Different countries have different broadcast systems and advertising deals. As much as I love to see basketball represented abroad, the sport is nowhere near soccer's popularity level. This sounds wildly unrealistic.  

From this, I recall a lot of happy talk about the NBA making money in China. For years, we were sold on the concept of David Stern, marching into the Far East and returning with billions. Well, according to the New York Times, the NBA's China adventure hasn't gone so swimmingly:

"Perhaps the N.B.A.’s biggest challenge of all is that the C.B.A. is part of the Chinese government, under the control of the ruling Communist Party. Foreign companies doing business in China must inevitably navigate the country’s distinctive brand of 'state capitalism,' in which the invisible hand of the market is often hard to free from the tentacles of the authoritarian government. The companies that do best usually exercise patience, maintain a low profile and are careful not to give the state cause to regard them as a threat."

This is just one example to show that making money off world interest isn't as simple as simply wanting to. Basketball is popular abroad, but popularity is no guarantee of profit. 

More to the point, don't we already have a FIBA championship? The 2010 World Championship title game between USA and Turkey garnered less than one million viewers on ESPN (via Sports Media Watch), worse than the amount for an average national NBA game broadcast. The United States team was thrilling, likable and led by an ascendent Kevin Durant. Interest was muted because Americans aren't so used to following their hoops in a different format.

My guess, and it's been my guess for awhile, is that the NBA wants out of the Olympics because the Olympics doesn't care about the NBA. NBC owns rights to the Olympic games and the NBA is an ABC property.

NBC would far rather hype up swimming and gymnastics rather than accelerate interest in an NBA-related property. Remember, NBC owns rights to the nationally televised hockey, a sport that runs concurrent to pro basketball on the other network.

So I would surmise that this is more about branding and control than money. If ABC/ESPN owned rights to the Olympic games, they would give Stern's league prime time viewing slots, and a sweeping, overarching advertisement for the sport.

This is what the NBA owners are probably seeking from an amped up FIBA World Championships. It's unrealistic to strive for World Cup status. It is realistic for basketball's biggest league to want some control over the branding of their stars.

But, if the NBA really wishes to get out of the NBC-controlled Olympics, they should perhaps fix the FIBA World Championship first. There isn't anything stopping Stern's men from getting more than a mere million viewers. They could easily create a better international tournament with the IOC only butting in every four years or so.

Before intruding on the freedom of players to join Olympic squads, the NBA must first create a viable alternative. It makes little sense to ban superstars from the Olympics, then demand that they play in an oft-ignored tourney.   

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